What is Access to Justice?

A few years ago I was listening to Dan Lear speak about something related to changing face of the legal profession, and he said that he didn’t like the phrase “access to justice” because people think about the word justice and they think huge things like people protesting in the street.   I think he had some other point, and I think I remember disagreeing with him at the time, but he was right about the justice thing – it’s often not the little guy fighting against a huge corporation or someone wrongly accused of a crime fighting for their freedom.   It’s often mundane things like getting a building permit or just wanting to read the law because your condo association did something you didn’t agree with.  Justice often requires lots of paper work.

Access to justice isn’t just for poor people, either.  It’s for everyone.  Although it does mean leveling the playing field as much as possible so things like wealth (or educational or social or etc.)  status don’t matter.  If I were the benevolent dictator of society, I’d take out the phrase “the best attorney money can buy” because all attorneys should be equally able to represent their clients.  If you haven’t looked into the issue, the work loads of public defenders and legal aid attorneys is horrific.   A friend shared this image on Facebook and I think it encapsulates what I’m trying to say:

main-qimg-f51bafff30c44ed8cba87ddcf55c1162So anyway, in my quest (and psychological need) to define everything, I’ve been thinking a lot about what access to justice means, who participates, and what aspects of it can be improved via technology.  So I made a mind map. (Another mindmap??  Yes.  Another mindmap.  I’m a visual thinker.)  I think there’s a lot areas that can be improved via technology simply because they don’t require an attorney to complete.  (And there’s the third rail conversation which is which of the attorney activities can be replaced by technology?)  A lot, though, depends on government funding, and that’s going to be a problem.   It’s a work in progress, and, as always, I’m open to suggestion.

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  3 comments for “What is Access to Justice?

  1. Karen Dyck
    May 23, 2016 at 9:14 am

    Good start Sarah!
    I like this way of looking at A2J, which is a catchphrase for issues much broader than just access to lawyers or courts. You’re right to include access to information. I might add access to dispute resolution – whether person to person or person to business – through mediation, arbitration, ODR, conciliation, etc. And also, access to administrative justice, perhaps as an arm of government services. We have, in Canada at least, many administrative tribunals that make decisions about key issues in people’s lives, whether relating to tenancies or workers compensation or other government benefit programs. For many of these we need access to advocacy services – not necessarily lawyers, but skilled and informed advocates. I’d likely have drawn this with a giant circle around it, representing technology which enables aspects of all of it.

  2. May 23, 2016 at 9:45 am

    Hi Sarah.
    It seems like other than “For Hire Attorneys” you’ve left out the entire commercial sector. Is that intentional? Certainly in the “Access to Legal Information” commercial vendors play an oversized role in how that information is accessed. For the other areas of access commercial interests are likely involved in each step.
    I’m not sure to what extent commercial interests promote or inhibit access to justice (another third rail discussion) but they probably figure into the equation.

  3. Dee B.
    May 24, 2016 at 11:02 am

    Elemr makes a good point here, for not only the “how” of legal information access can be seen as being controlled by commercial vendors, but it could be argued that the cost of materials often determines “if” reliable and reputable sources of legal information will be accessible at all. Simply consider the rising costs of materials (see: BC Courthouse Libraries “Digital Shift” for example) and the fact that the industry is largely controlled by a handful of players (even less than a handful in Canada I would say). If government funds go down, whilst vendor costs go up, one is soon left with CanLII (a great though limited tool), labyrinthine government websites, confusing courthouse counters and a Google search box.

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